Make citizenship count for more than the perks it gives

It's an overcast morning in late June 2016 and I'm standing outside St Columba's Church with my takeaway coffee, waiting for the doors to open. The church is the official polling station for my corner of Oxford city, south of High Street, and I'm here to cast my ballot in the European Union referendum.

It isn't my first time voting in the United Kingdom: I've previously done so in the General Election and Labour Party leadership election of 2015, and in less than a year, I would be back again, voting in the UK General Election of 2017.

By virtue of our membership in the Commonwealth, Singapore citizens who live in the UK can vote in all parliamentary, local and European elections. This non-reciprocal arrangement is formalised in the British Nationality Act of 1981, where the term "Commonwealth citizen" first came to replace "British subject". Among other things, the law codifies the understanding that some non-citizens, especially those from Britain's former colonies, have a legitimate stake in Britain's future.

Not everyone is persuaded. Following the referendum, several British friends tell me that while voting "Remain" was the right decision, they think I should not have been able to vote in the first place. It seems incongruous that I, a short-term resident, should count as an equal in their political process.

After all, my four-year stint is shorter than the time many foreign professionals might spend in Singapore. An imperial past, too, seems a shaky basis for me to exercise a right of democratic participation.

The privilege of voting elsewhere, however, has given me a chance to reflect on this right as a central but often overlooked component of my Singaporean citizenship. Young Singaporeans I know are more likely to cite particular entitlements (such as subsidised healthcare) or conveniences (visa-free travel) as the core benefits of a red passport.

My research on non-citizens who are completing their National Service also reveals that many also hope to gain citizenship in order to enjoy these perks.

But citizenship is about much more than that: It is the formal recognition given to one's membership in a political community. In other words, it marks one's belonging in a nation or society that has won, through independence, the right to make and implement its own laws.

In democratic societies, like ours, such decisions are made collectively, by the demos. And the right to express one's preference over what decisions should be made, and by whom, is thus fundamental to being a citizen.

Though I turn 24 this year, I have never exercised this right in my own country. Singapore's voting age is 21, which means that most young men are entrusted with a gun when we enlist for full-time national service, before we are trusted with the vote. I turned 21 in the year of the last general election, but could not vote because my birthday fell in May, after registration closed. Last year's presidential election would have been the first time, but Madam Halimah Yacob's uncontested win meant that I will have to wait a little longer. Until the 2015 General Election - where every seat was contested - there were still adult Singaporeans who had never voted.

I have often wondered why social and political issues are so distant from the lives of my peers. One reason may be that opportunities to exercise democratic rights seem few and far between. Far more than studying politics in the classroom, voting in the UK spurred me to understand complex issues (like Scottish independence) that, at first glance, mattered little to my life as a student. This process brought the realisation that, despite only spending a brief time in the UK, I had a privileged place in its social fabric, and this carried obligations towards the community which had taken me in.

The chance to participate more fully in our democracy might build interest among our youth in the issues that confront Singapore now. It might also help them understand what it means to 'belong' here in more meaningful terms.

The chance to participate more fully in our democracy might build interest among our youth in the issues that confront Singapore now. It might also help them understand what it means to "belong" here in more meaningful terms. The country, after all, is more than a country club, and membership should be conceived less in terms of its rewards, than the right to partake in shared decisions.

Beyond voting, this could involve creating more opportunities for youth to engage elected leaders directly, or developing student unions and other student organisations as spaces of healthy debate on issues that transcend the classroom.

The National Youth Council's ongoing Youth Conversations initiative is a positive step, but more long-term efforts should also be taken not only to solicit but also to act on the perspectives of our young. Correspondingly, citizenship education should focus on cultivating values such as fairness, curiosity and scepticism that are essential to being informed, open-minded voters.

Unless young Singaporeans have the chance to exercise the rights that are central to their citizenship, they may tend to see their membership in our society in little more than material terms. And however able we are to guarantee these rewards in the short term, this is a future we can barely afford.

 • Theophilus Kwek is a recent graduate of Oxford University, and a full-time national serviceman.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 25, 2018, with the headline 'Make citizenship count for more than the perks it gives'. Print Edition | Subscribe